Somehow, it took until yesterday for me to finally watch the David Foster Wallace commencement speech “This Is Water” in its entirety. My friend, Matt Berkey, thought it would be useful for me, as I frequently have lamented to him that I find my mind constantly races on numerous channels at once and I find it difficult to tune it out.
Wallace covers a lot of topics in this brilliant work, but he often returns to this notion that college and higher education helps you choose what to think about.
Wallace claims, “The only thing that’s capital-T True is that you get to decide how you’re going to try to see it. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t. You get to decide what to worship…”
He also admits it is tough to make this choice. It is tough to decide not to think about negative things and decide not to worry. I was relieved by the honesty, as I am one of those people who has to actively observe little moments that make me smile, they rarely stumble into my line of sight unnoticed. I typically walk to my mailbox looking at the asphalt, and it is only when I force myself to notice the child next door riding his bike or impressing himself with his light up shoes that I smile at the little things. Wallace is right. It is a learned, conditioned behavior, not something I think to do naturally.
But along about the fifth time Wallace reiterated this choice was possible, I looked at Berkey and asked, “Didn’t this guy kill himself?”
“Yes. He shot himself in the head.”*
“And it doesn’t bother that this guy, who clearly couldn’t choose to get these negative thoughts out of his head completely is telling you that you can?”
“Nope. He did for a while, but like he said, it is hard.”
I’ve spent all night and day thinking about this speech, trying to rationalize these two realities–the speech he gave and the way Wallace died. I am reminded on my mother, who is blessed with something I often claim is the skill I want more than any other skill in the world, which is the ability to choose not to let things bother her, to push it out of her mind. I want to push my doubts about the truth of this speech out of my mind, but I can’t because, every time I reason through it, I get tripped up by Wallace’s demise.
As my mind wrestled with these concepts, I saw many of my friends Tweeting about the new law in Indiana that allows businesses to turn away gay customers. I thought about the old rhetoric around being gay. That it was a choice.
I thought of closeted people who tried to choose to be straight, believing they could force themselves into thinking and wanting something that isn’t natural to them. The thoughts of what they really wanted didn’t go away, they were just pushed back to a channel of your mind that isn’t as loud as your train of thought.
You see, at any given time, I have at least three channels of thought running through my head. There is the forefront, that types these words and admires Wisconsin’s shot faking abilities. Then there is the voice going, “Should you even be typing this, admitting what a weirdo you are that you can’t seem to choose not to be a downer and worry all the time? Then there is that third channel that is a steady stream of worries ranging from the physical health of my friends and family to how I’ll pay my bills this month to what I might do if I was one of those poor people who died in that plane crash in the Alps. I can push things out of the forefront, and, if you can’t tell by my candor, I’ve learned to ignore the second, mostly reticent channel. The third one though, I can try to drum out with noise, but it will always be there.
Which brings me back to Wallace. I want to believe he is right. But to me, his demise and this speech means that isn’t the case. Or, if it is the case, it is unconscionably difficult to maintain this mindset in the long term, that you are probably ignoring issues that need to be addressed. I am grateful that I the voice in the back of my head doesn’t go to deep, dark places–I am anxious, not so much depressed, so while I get overwhelmed with worry and stress when I am faced with a number of difficult life situations, I generally don’t believe that life is awful, more frustrating than anything else . As my mom used to say, "You’re a worrier. It’s your nature.”
So, is a viable solution really to try and drown out that worrisome voice forever, knowing it will almost certainly never disappear entirely? Or is there something to be said for trying to embrace that worry, practicing what I’ve learned is called defensive pessimism, where you try to address your worries by constantly expecting and preparing for the worst case scenario.
I’ve been pursuing the defensive pessimism path for a while, which might explain why I approach this speech with such hesitance and skepticism. So, for the next little while, I am going to try to heed Wallace’s advice and focus on the happy and the positive. I am going to try and expect good things. I am going to embrace those happy moments and try to dwell in them, hoping that quiet little voice in the back of my head will play along and realize it is normal and fine to worry and stress, but that Jessica needs a break every once in a while.
*My friend Robert Wooley kindly corrected me that Wallace actually hung himself, he didn’t shoot himself, which is pertinent given the context of the speech. Thanks, Bob!